Darnton’s book deals with Enlightenment France and the particular process of historiography, in his search to find out the way the French lived in the 18th century.He takes particular instances and primary documents in French history and uses them duly to place them in the broader themes of how the French lived their lives.
In one chapter he simply concentrates on the evolution of tell-tales and fantasy among the peasantry of France from the origins of stories like Red Riding Hood and Mother Goose.
However, his book also concentrates on the lives and ways of many “philosophes” and famous Enlightenment writers developed their circles of apprehensions. Particularly the way they helped expand the “tree of knowledge” through the use of Diderot’s Encyclopaedie.
Interestingly, Darnton also talks about the incessant means of surveillance employed by the Parisian police, through the eyes of a police inspector, who kept tabs on all the philosophers though various mediums. The reason he did this, is because their increasing rhetoric about freedoms and human rights was seen as damaging to the totalitarian monarchy under Louis XIV and XV.
However, the most important aspect about Robert Darnton’s book is his ability to concentrate his attention on the analysis of single documents and stories( primary evidence) and formulate some feasible discourse in regards to the way the French proto-epistemology developed.
Although you might not be interested in the French Enlightenment or particularly in French history, you should still read this book as a historian.
It can provide a great deal of information on the manners and processes of studying and understanding the process. If you want to become a historian, or have any faint interest in it, it would not be a bad idea to pick this book up!
Published in The Art of Polemics, Issue 1, on June 18th, 2014.